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Ignorance Is Not Bliss: The Need for Civic Education in the United States

We cannot expect that the mass media will provide what we, rather than what we. Therefore, we must acknowledge that we must seek out information to inform our decisions rather than confirm our biases.
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Recent discussion enveloping the Syrian refugee crisis has revealed many things. Nativism, xenophobia, intolerance, and genuine fear is alive and well in the USA. A recent survey revealed that 30 percent of Republicans support bombing the fictional country of Agrabah (the country from the Disney film Aladdin). While the headline makes it look like a large group of Republicans are crazy to want to bomb a fictional country, a close read of the story reveals that nearly 1 in 5 Democrats support bombing it too. That's right, large groups of both Republicans and Democrats support bombing a fictional country from a cartoon!

Such ignorance is exacerbated when school systems allow students to opt out of learning about the Muslim world. Suddenly, the film Wag the Dog seems easier to accomplish.

Several years ago, a colleague and I published an article analyzing the public sale for the war in Iraq. We drew upon research examining how people make decisions under various contexts. In particular, we used what is referred to as prospect theory for our analysis. The theory concludes that under conditions of threat, people are far more willing to take on what would appear to be "risky" decisions they would not choose when things appear to be going well. The security loss of September 11th and the Bush administration's linking of Saddam Hussein to arm terrorists inflated the feelings of loss and increased feelings of threat by his regime. Prior to 9/11, the public had very little appetite for a ground war in Iraq. In the post-9/11 environment, and after six months of a public sale, the citizenry showed significant support for regime change in Iraq. Put simply, fear affects our judgment. It affects judgment in authoritarian regimes and in democratic societies as well.

There is rightful concern over national security and terror attacks given the stated aims of ISIS. There are awfully bad people out there seeking to do harm and exact damage across the globe -- including the United States.

There are many ways to deal with emerging issues regarding ISIS. I can't begin to imagine someone has the solution to fully address these issues. Yet, the multitude of facile arguments made in the wake of the Paris attacks range from lazy to convenient to misinformed. I was struck by the #PrayforParis phenomenon and at the same time thinking that in addition to prayer, a little education might do us all some good (i.e., #DoSomeResearchOnISIS).

There is a lot of anger about the direction of this country. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have tapped into a discontented mass of Americans. Yet, unrest abounds from the right and the left. Our leaders are only as good as the people who select them. If you don't like what's going on in society, it is time to look in the mirror. I tell my own kids that when you know better, you do better. I don't have solutions to all the problems of the world, but I sure try and educate myself to understand them a whole lot better.

We live in a time where information is bountiful. A spate of recent stories have documented problems many of the candidates have had with truth telling on the campaign trail. We have seen them stretch the truth, distort the truth, or simply tell whoppers. The "truthiness" of candidates does not seem to faze many of their supporters. Either they do not seem to care or they do not recognize the mendacity of their candidates' claims. Support to bomb fictional places such as Agrabah suggests that while the tools are available to obtain more information, many simply fail to do so.

Social media is filled with memes that boil down complicated arguments to an image and a few pithy comments. My own Facebook feed has been wrought with commentary and imagery associated with Syrian refugees, gun control, and race relations in recent weeks. It is akin to walking into a room where all hell is breaking loose -- fists are flying, and everyone is screaming at the top of their lungs. Passion seems to be ruling the day.

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, and the like were not created to inform the masses of the most important issues of the day. Yet, many do get their news from these sources. Perhaps more troubling, traditional news sources fall prey to many of the same problems -- over reliance upon sensationalism, iconography, and story-telling. Thirty years ago, Neal Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death lamented the debasement of news. He foresaw the coming of soft news and its penchant to "infotain" the masses.

The picture he painted has only crystallized over time. The reliance upon sensationalism in the news media is well-documented. Deep, investigative reporting exists, but it is not the norm. It is costly and not as sexy as the soft news that pervades the airwaves today. Sadly, we have viewers attracted to programs that confirm their views, rather than inform their views.

We cannot expect that the mass media will provide what we need, rather than what we want. Therefore, we must focus on prescribing a proper remedy. To do so requires us to acknowledge that we must seek out information to inform our decisions rather than confirm our biases. This is necessary to properly participate in a democracy. Understanding history, culture, institutions, religion, economics, language, and governmental processes work to help us critically analyze what is happening domestically and on the international front. Failing to acquire this knowledge leads to bad candidates and poor decision-making. In short, it is time for some civic literacy in this country. Only then can we expect more of our candidates, our policies, and our future.

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